LA MIRADA — Fifteen years ago, the La Mirada Mall grew from a 50-store, open-air shopping center to an enclosed mall, doubling in size, because bigger was better. And malls couldn't lose.
But the La Mirada Mall lost.
City officials now are endorsing a step back in size that they say is forward in thinking. They are ripping down their regional mall and replacing it with a neighborhood shopping center that will house about 40 stores, theaters and restaurants.
At a groundbreaking Thursday, city officials and businessmen gathered around a 10-by-20-foot patch of artificial turf graced by a podium, a loudspeaker, two columns of green and white balloons and a silver-bladed shovel.
Around them, mounds of asphalt pushed up from the ground like stalagmites. Vacant shells of buildings echoed the hum of bulldozers. And above the din and dust, purple and yellow letters still clearly identified this vanishing ghost town: La Mirada Mall.
It is the rubble of which retail dreams were once made.
In the early '70s, Canadian developer Mark Tanz invested about $7 million to transform a loosely arranged collection of stores into an enclosed mall next to a renovated outdoor plaza with fountains and trees.
A city-commissioned market study boasted, "The La Mirada Mall has become an attractive, growing center. . . . Many people seem to treat this mall as a community center and visit it just to browse or show to visitors."
Even before the work by Tanz, the shopping area had grown steadily since 1958, when a market and a handful of other stores first appeared on vacant land at the southeast corner of La Mirada Boulevard and Rosecrans Avenue. There was room to grow and the plaza did, piece by piece, across 72 acres.
And that became part of the problem.
"If a housewife wanted to take her clothes to the cleaners, buy some clothes for her kids, have her shoes repaired, shop at the grocery store and mail a letter, she had to move her car five different times," Councilman Wayne Rew said.
The center generally thrived anyway, until these weaknesses were exposed by increasing competition in every direction: to the north, the Whittwood Mall (enclosed and expanded in 1979); to the south, Buena Park Mall (built in 1979) and Los Cerritos Center (built in 1971); to the east, La Habra Fashion Square (1969), and to the west, the Stonewood Center (built in the late 1950s, now being enclosed).
That is why Tanz expanded and enclosed what became the La Mirada Mall. He and the city would try to win the battle of the big malls by being bigger.
But the enclosed mall, too, had problems. The weaving, circular interior path made some stores almost invisible, and customers literally had to walk a figure-eight to get to other businesses. Some of the larger stores in the east wing were not even directly accessible from inside the mall.
"It was confusing," Councilman Art Leslie said. "You weren't sure which door you went in or where you had parked your car. And it was spread out so far. It wasn't convenient for people to walk."
Successful regional malls are typically located near freeways or on major roads, or both. La Mirada Mall sat at the intersection of two streets with less combined traffic than Whittier Boulevard, a major thoroughfare to the north, carries by itself. Visibility from freeways also was limited, to say the least. A market study pointed out that a potential shopper could see the top of a mall pylon from a single overpass of the Artesia Freeway. Other than that, shoppers had to know the mall was there and not mind leaving the freeway and driving more than a mile to search for it.
Major stores deserted, including J.J. Newberry, Woolco, Ohrbach's and Barker Brothers. Attempts to lure a major department store failed.
Resident Madeline Hernandez, 25, was among those who began shopping at the Cerritos mall. "More people, more stores, more big department stores," she said.
Said Frances Smith, another resident: "The shops were always closing and they were always opening new ones. I usually just went to the movies when I went to the mall."
In a desperate attempt to lure tenants, mall owners negotiated long-term, low-cost leases for desirable tenants, such as Toys 'R' Us, city officials said.
"We understand that some businesses had a lease that said their rent went down instead of going up," Councilman Rew said.
The efforts failed to attract great numbers of either new customers or tenants.
Tanz sold the mall about 10 years ago, and there followed a succession of absentee or inexperienced owners, City Manager Gary Sloan said. They included a residential developer, two garment-industry executives and a Long Beach savings and loan. Mall owners invested little in the property, he added.
A 1984 city-sponsored study offered solutions: make the entrances stand out more, improve the road around the mall, make the doors more identifiable, add attractive and consistent architectural features throughout, install larger illuminated signs and skylights.